Sundance London 2023 review – Past Lives (2023)

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The voices at the start of Celine Song’s delicate Past Lives don’t have faces. They could be us. They’re fascinated by the body language of three people sat together in a bar – a Korean man and woman and a “white guy” – and are trying to work out the relationship between them. Are the two Koreans married or having an affair? How does the “white guy” fit in? They’re sitting too far away to hear his voice and work out where he comes from. He seems to be an awkward observer, while the other two are relaxed in each other’s company, chatting away happily. Over the course of the next 100 or so minutes, Song digs into their individual stories, filling in the gaps and piecing together the intricacies of their relationships.

It starts in South Korea with Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), young classmates who walk home together every day. She has a crush on him, but they’re separated when her family emigrates to Toronto. Twelve years later, he’s done his military service, she’s now living in New York and the two reconnect by chance through Facebook. They speak frequently over Skype, talk about visiting each other but, eventually, Nora decides she wants to focus on being a writer and their conversations stop. She goes to a writer’s retreat, where she meets Arthur (John Magaro), and the story fast forwards again by twelve years, to find them married. Hae Sung, who is planning a trip to New York, gets back in touch and arranges to meet her, making her suspect he’s not there on holiday but specifically to see her. The three go out for dinner, ending up in the bar from the start of the film.

Arriving at this year’s Sundance London on a wave of critical acclaim and a win at Berlin, this isn’t a love story, but a story about love, in both its romantic and platonic forms, as well as the aching complexity of the space in between. Over the years, Hae Sung’s romantic love for Nora has clearly grown, so that when they re-connect over Skype, their conversations become more frequent and are as important and real in their lives as actual dates. Her decision for them to stop talking, even though she says it’s temporary, is devasting for him, but what he doesn’t see is that it affects her deeply as well. It’s a sequence full of the agony of unexpressed feelings and a relationship that can’t be neatly categorized. There’s real power and maturity here and it says a lot for Song’s understanding of her characters.

In a portrait of a type of yearning that seems especially prevalent today, and goes hand in hand with social media, phrases like “what if” and “what could’ve been” constantly linger in the background, with Nora explaining it through the concept of “in-yun”. It’s essentially about how fate brings together two people, based on limitless connections in their previous lives. None of us has any control over who walks into our lives, who stays there or who leaves. Aside from being a fascinating, if somewhat detached, approach to relationships, it also prevents the film from becoming overly sentimental or melodramatic. And it builds to a climax tinged with echoes of Brief Encounter – a choice that’s right on so many levels, but is it right for her?

Song has chosen her triangle of actors with care and precision. Lee’s Nora is an attractive mix of the gentle and the sharp, while as Hae Sun, Yoo’s steady gazes speak volumes. The standout, however, is John Magaro (First Cow), unassuming but patient and prepared to take the risks that go with marriage – and “in-yun” itself. For a debut feature, the film is brilliantly observed, heartfelt and mature in its complexity. And, with the first half of the year already behind us, it’s also one of the films to beat over the next six months.


Drama | Sundance London, 8 and 9 July 2023 | StudioCanal | Released in UK cinemas on 8 September 2023| Cert: 12A | Korean and English | Dir: Celine Song | Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro.